The ‘politics’ of publication

They Said "Say It With Flowers"

I bought the above postcard on impulse in about 1975, thinking: ‘That’s hilarious! It would be difficult to take serious offence at receiving it, yet the message is unmistakable! I’m bound to need one of those some day…’

And I have. But I haven’t yet sent it. It has disappeared for the odd decade at the back of a drawer, then surfaced during the next move, been refiled where I could find it if I needed it, and now rests only an arm’s length away at the back of a card rack on my desk. I would never admit this, but probably the reason for its promotion is that in the last year of wrestling with publishers I’ve come closer than ever to sending it. I have actually extracted it from the rack, placed it in front of me with a view to signing and addressing it, incandescently contemplated its visceral and acerbic message, then…put it back in its rack.

The ‘politics’ of publication (by which I mean ‘personal politics’, of course, not the ideological variety, although they can enter into it) are turbid and tetra-toxic. Take last Monday and Tuesday. I decided to make a final, final list of publishers to tackle (I had so far approached 47), by collating the notes from my last four visits to the Biography section at Waterstones AND going through the 65 pages of ‘Book Publishers UK and Ireland’ in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2017 for the very last time.

It did not take long to extract the marrow from my notes, but since the list in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook comprises over 500 publishers, re-examining them was slow work. It is no exaggeration to say, though, that the process was accompanied by an internal monologue something like this:

Ah, Caligula…he once sent me an ‘advance’ of £1000 after I’d flatly refused to work for him, assuming I suppose that I would take the poisoned bait…

Aaaargh, X Publisher…it’s a complete tragedy that I can’t tackle them, they are one of the most suitable, but they would give it to that ghastly Russianist to read who is so competitive that said person would diss it on principle and steal my material…

Hello, there’s that formula ‘no approaches except through a respectable agent’ again…could those two publishers separated by ten pages be owned by the same person? Goodness yes, they are and he diddled me in the 1980s… How on earth does he know what a ‘respectable’ agent is?

(Sigh) It really is a pity about Y Publisher…couldn’t I possibly reconsider them? No: they offered me a contract then told me the book didn’t ‘read well’. Of course, they might be right, but their examples revealed them as literarily naive. In any case they are rude. Who tells their own author ‘you can’t write’?!

Ah, Z Publisher… I’ve done four books with them…when did I write to that smarmy bloke up there…what, 28 August! Not even to reply to my proposal, which took four hours to compile according to their template, is downright insulting… He’s a candidate for the orange card, if anyone is.

Hang on, what is this outfit? ‘Biography’…how did I overlook them? Authors include…eminent names…Kim Philby…Donald Trump… Er, I don’t think so!

I could, of course, go on, but you get my drift. The theatre is a piranha pool of ‘politics’, but at least you can see the piranhas, distract them, sweet-talk them, take evasive action and so forth, but most of the time with publishers you can’t get anywhere near them physically, you can’t see the whites of their eyes, you only have written communication which enables them to behave outrageously and get away with it… Yes, publishing is profoundly personally politicised and one must take that very seriously if one is not to waste one’s time. I have even been prevented from taking on the best (‘respectable’) agent in the country for a book like mine by the fact that they represent a well-known Russianist virago whom they would be bound to consult.

By the end of last Monday, I had that ‘final, final’ list of publishers to approach and it consisted of twelve. I spent all Tuesday morning researching them and their personnel on the Web. By lunchtime I had to reject them all, for one reason and another, sometimes objective, sometimes purely ‘personal’, such as, alas, the look of their editors’ portraits…

Yes, finding a publisher is, as John Dewey has said, a matter of luck. Or chance. Or contingency. Or personal politics. All my past experience tells me that. Publishing is what mathematicians, I believe, would call ‘a system near to the edge of chaos’. Quite by chance, I notice that a very bright publisheress, with whom I had good dealings back in 1998, has taken over in a ‘distinguished’ firm that I was warned off three years ago because it did ‘no marketing’ (London literati). Now they do do marketing. Will she remember me? I have written her such a careful, subjunctive letter as Proust himself might be proud of.

Someone, though, at the end of this exercise, is going to get the floral card from me, I just know it; unless, after forty years, I can’t bear to part with it and I convert it into a kind of witch’s doll (technically, I gather, a ‘poppet’) that I take out every so often to mutter over, in order to exorcise my wrath, then replace in the rack.

Meanwhile, the decision about who is going to publish George Calderon: Edwardian Genius will be taken around 15 December as promised, but not announced until the day after Twelfth Night, so as not to disrupt the next two posts. I heard today from our chosen printer for self-publishing that we will have four months from the beginning of January to get the hardback designed and typeset to appear on 4 June 2018, so we should manage that. That date is, of course, the anniversary of George Calderon’s death at Gallipoli. The idea would be to have a second launch/marketing storm to coincide with the end of the War and George’s 150th birthday on 2 December 2018. After that, the book would go to Kindle and Amazon paperback.

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5 Responses to The ‘politics’ of publication

  1. Duke Ryan says:

    Hi Patrick,
    At the end of your piece, you mention self-publishing and creating a “marketing storm,” but can you afford one such storm, much less two? I believe most self-publishers simply deliver a supply of books to your house. Anyway, good luck. Cheers, Duke

  2. Patrick Miles says:

    Dear Duke, it’s great to hear from you again, and thank you so much for your good luck, which we shall certainly need! The cost of good digital publishing has greatly fallen over here (and our printers seem to be the best in the business), but I’m afraid at the moment the ‘limited edition’ (hardback) will not be less than £30… We think we can afford the two marketing storms, because (a) I don’t have to cost my time, (b) we already have a Web presence and can develop that, (c) Armistice 2018 is a last opportunity for a long time. In a way, the financial problem is going to be if we sell out the hardback edition by December 2018 (unlikely) and demand for it is such that have to reprint before going to Kindle/paperback. All best as ever, Patrick

  3. John Dewey says:

    This all sounds depressingly familiar, Patrick, not that I have such a wide and long experience of the commercial publishing racket as yourself. My encounter with it came as a shock after years of working for a small friendly firm which published translations from Russian largely as a labour of love. Apart from downright crooks (and there are some of those), for a large number of those involved the power they wield seems to have gone to their head. Best to think of such self-proclaimed ‘gatekeepers’ perhaps as jobsworths in peaked caps who get a kick from turning people away. There are exceptions of course, and I hope you do succeed in finding the odd jewel or two among the dross. Re ‘marketing storm’ (should you go for self-publishing), a fruitful approach I found was emails targeted at university and other specialist libraries, as well as selected university staff in relevant fields (in your case, Russian depts., Theatre Studies, WW1 studies, etc.) identified from their online academic profiles. All time-consuming, but at least that way one can guarantee sales to libraries. The American academic market is particularly vast, of course. Anyway, the best of luck whichever route you take.

  4. Ian S. says:

    A publisher writes: Hmm, I should perhaps say something in defence of our ignoble profession. From our side of the desk, we are overladen with submissions, most of which are of too poor quality to pursue, but each one still needing a reply. The ones that are worth pursuing often come without any thought to marketing, and we never use the word ‘publishing’ without it being followed by ‘and marketing’. Once in a while we will come across a submission that is worth pursuing on all fronts and then find it is unfundable. And funding these days is the big issue. With the book trade buying at 50% discount on the one hand and using the best colour reproduction possibilities on the other, there are simply losses to be made publishing and marketing illustrated non-fiction. Going down the digital route as Patrick is doing is a valid alternative, but one needs to be awfully careful not to end up with a garage full of unsold and unsellable books. If one plays one’s cards right one can have one’s cake and eat it, if that’s not moxing mitaphors, by ‘self-publishing’ with a proper publisher, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Good luck to all authors and artists out there; and good luck to all publishers and marketers too!

    • Patrick Miles says:

      ‘A publisher’ is clearly not the kind we have been inveighing against, since he believes in replying to writers’ proposals/submissions! I have no doubt what he says here is true. ‘Unfundable’, though, presumably means ‘the publisher would suffer a five-figure loss if he himself invested in it’. On the one hand, one can see that this is not an option for the publisher, and a writer would be better off self-publishing for a four-figure sum and printing a realistic number that he knows he can sell and even make a ‘profit’ from. On the other hand, it would be refreshing to hear publishers talk for once about taking a ‘risk’, e.g. with a book they said they ‘believed in’, e.g. a ground-breaking biography of Fyodor Tyutchev, one of Russia’s greatest poets. On the third hand, one gathers that it won’t be long before Amazon can publish hardbacks simply ‘on demand’ from writers’ typeset, and that will surely drive many traditional publishers to the wall?

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